Margo Martindale, Nestor Serrano
- Rated PG-13
- Buy the BD
All photos © Walt Disney
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
fter 2003’s “Seabiscuit," the last thing anyone needed was another movie about horseracing. Then again, Disney has cranked out enough inspirational sports dramas over the years to last a lifetime, so we should probably count ourselves lucky that it’s taken this long for them to make a film about every gambler's favorite equestrian sport. But while “Seabiscuit” focused more on the far-reaching effects of a down-and-out racehorse who became a national hero, "Secretariat" is a more contained story about how one woman’s belief in a horse created a legacy that is as strong today as it was 40 years ago. It’s not a particularly great film, but by recognizing its own limits, "Secretariat" never tries to be more than a feel-good movie, and it's better because of it.
Based on the book, “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion,” by sportswriter William Knack, the film stars Diane Lane as Penny Tweedy, an ordinary housewife who returns to her childhood home in Virginia after her mother passes away. With her father (Scott Glenn) suffering from dementia and his estate losing money, Penny decides to stay on the farm and help return it to its former glory rather than sell it for a fraction of what it’s worth. When she discovers that a long-running deal made between her father and a local businessman (James Cromwell) promises the estate one of two foals sired by champion racehorse Bold Ruler, Penny puts together a team – including trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), jockey Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), and groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) – to turn the young mare into the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.
“Seabiscuit” may have been nominated for seven Academy Awards, but it’s hard to imagine “Secretariat” even coming close to that number, despite the fact that the movie is no worse than its predecessor. Part of that has to do with the fact that “Seabiscuit” was released in a remarkably weak Oscar year, but it's also because “Secretariat” doesn’t really offer anything new to the genre. Diane Lane is solid as the headstrong Penny, and John Malkovich turns in yet another memorable performance, but neither role is particularly showy. There are also plenty of great character actors populating the movie – like Dylan Baker, Fred Dalton Thompson, and Margo Martindale – all of whom seem more than happy to play their part in the story, no matter how small it may be.
Though it’s easy to be tempted into cramming as much information as possible into a movie based on events that took place over the course of a four-year period, director Randall Wallace smartly restrains himself by only choosing the most important ones, resulting in a film that's surprisingly well-paced. Only a subplot involving Penny’s war-protesting daughter (Amanda Michalka) feels unnecessary, although it serves as a nice example of how Penny's independent spirit has rubbed off on her family. The racing sequences are also fairly exciting thanks to Wallace’s in-the-trenches shooting style that literally places a camera in the middle of the action, making the races feel like mini battle scenes. His biggest contribution, however, is in creating suspense in a story that many people already know the ending to, and although that doesn't amend for some of the sappier moments, it does make "Secretariat" a more engaging experience.
Two-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
Disney has put together a solid collection of bonus material for the Blu-ray release of “Secretariat,” including an audio commentary by director Randall Wallace, seven deleted scenes, and a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of the spectacular race sequences. There’s also an interesting featurette called “Heart of a Champion” that retraces the history of Secretariat’s Triple Crown triumph through interviews with various cast members and the real-life people they portrayed in the film, an intimate discussion between Wallace and the real Penny Chenery, and a DVD copy of the movie.